Saturday, January 11, 2014

Reading Notes: The Forgotten City

Australian speculative fiction up-and-comer Nina D'Aleo's debut novel, The Last City, was nominated last year for an Aurealis Award. Although it was pipped, probably deservedly, by Daniel O'Malley's wonderful The Rook, I maintained then that it was close to the top of the pile of a very, very strong nominee list in the sci fi category. In its complex plotting, its intricate world-building, and its Mieville-esque aesthetic, I thought it a stunning achievement as a first novel, and was thus eager to see if she could sustain the quality and interest in book 2 of the series.

This novel picks up a year after the demon-busting conclusion of The Last City, and features the same large cast of characters, with a few more chucked in for good measure. Although the publisher wants to tell you that the focus is on Scorpia City being taken over by the gangster clans, here's a little spoiler for you - it isn't. The political and social convulsions of Scorpia are quite tangential to the story, and are pretty much abandoned by the fifth chapter. Because why? Because this time, my friends, we're going on a bear (OK, Big Bad) hunt - across worlds and dimensions, no less.

D'Aleo attempts something quite difficult in this book, and I think she mostly but not quite pulls it off. What she does is this - she starts to thread together four key backstories and suggest an overarching plan / scheme / theme that might unite them, but without ever committing to actual straightforward exposition. To do this, she has to throw in two - no, I'm wrong, three - new worlds, a new evil bastard, a new damsel in distress from which she promptly rescues herself, a new and inventive set of torture methodologies, a new Dark Shadow Falling Across the World, and some really, truly, very disgusting stuff to underline the Very Serious Badness of the badnesses (If you read this, Nina - Ismail and the witch. I was eating, OK? :-)

The thing is, when you complicate an already quite dense setting and introduce more people for me to a) hate and b) care about into an already crowded stage, I start to get antsy and complainy unless the author is very, very skilful and light in their touch. It's a testament to just how good this book is - and man, it's good, in case I haven't made that clear - that I was only occasionally fatigued with the constant flipflopping between scenes and crises.

I am not a mad fan of the "splitting up the gang" trope, but mostly, it does serve this story well. I think the thread that was least successful was Diega, Christy Shawe, Cesar and Copernicus's adventures in weirdo forest land - that started getting tedious for me quite a while before we were done with it, and I found it the least innovative of all the locations. Once again, Eli's plot was brilliantly executed, although I executed a frowny face as it became clear that he was going to pull in not one, not two, but THREE new "characters about whom I must care" in his wake. And Silho's plot - excellent work there. I was genuinely on the edge of my seat with that one, and I liked it a great deal.

The new main protagonist, Croy, her partner Darius DeCavisi, and their industrialised, caste-based world took me a while to warm up to. I think it took a bit longer than it should've to effectively differentiate between Croy as a character and Silho herself - scratch the surface and they are super similar; young women, in law enforcement, strong, beautiful, possessed of strange powers and dark pasts etc. Although I came to see the Nyr-Corum plot arc as essential to the plot, I did spend a while being more or less just irritated with being yanked back into Croy's crisis when I really wanted to stick with my peeps Eli and Silho. That said, Croy's grown on me, and I'm very keen to see what the author does with her in the next book.

So, overall, I'd class this an ambitious and largely successful sci fi, quite dark in places (she does love to torture her characters!) but ultimately informed with a sense of purposive movement that saves it from being merely The Fiction of the Miserable. I am intrigued to see how she's going to realise her Big Bad without a let-down factor, and to see what lies in store for Eli; Silho and Copernicus; Diega and Christy (now there's an interesting plot arc, even if it does sniff suspiciously of Pair the Spares); Ev'r and Ismail; Croy, Darius and their new friend; and all the pretty lovable minor cast. Bring on book 3...

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